Zipporah: unsung heroine of parshat Yitro

The sidra is named for Yitro, the priest of Midian and father of seven daughters and indeed Yitro deserves the honour for he takes in the fugitive Moses, provides him with shelter, with work and with a wife – his daughter Zipporah, and he teaches him a great deal about leadership and about relationship with God.

But it is his daughters I would like to focus on, and in particular the long suffering Zipporah.

Moses, having fled the wrath of Pharaoh after he had killed an Egyptian taskmaster, fled to Midian and sat down by a well. The verse repeats one verb – וַיֵּשֶׁב – “to sit or to stay”, which alerts us to pay close attention. Rashi quotes midrash: – the first “staying” means that he settled in Midian, and the second that he deliberately sat near the well. Just as Jacob met Rachel and Eliezer found Rebecca at a well, it seems clear that Moses was intending to find himself a partner. Sure enough, he meets and subsequently helps the seven daughters of the priest of Midian who have come to get water for their father’s flocks. Having filled the troughs with water for their animals, the women are chased away by the shepherds – something that is apparently their usual experience as after Moses helps them they arrive home earlier than usual, an event noted by their surprised father.

Why do the shepherds chase the girls away? Scripture gives us no clue, but midrash comes to our rescue. According to Shemot Rabbah (1:32), the priest of Midian had abandoned idolatry and so had been excluded from the community, and his daughters were treated harshly because of this ban. It is a curious lacuna in the text,  tantalising us with the unexplained punitive treatment of the vulnerable daughters of a man of status even while appearing not to care very much.  At this point we do not know the name of their father, only that he is a “cohen Midian”, a priest of Midian.

Unlike the meetings that lead to the marriages of Rachel and Rebecca there seems to be no special relationship created between Moses and any of the women at the well. Indeed they do not invite him back to their home in order to thank him with their hospitality, but they leave him at the well; indeed the encounter would end there except that  their father asks what has happened that  they are back earlier than usual. Only then do they recount the event, and their father exclaims at their omission and tells them to call Moses in order to offer him a meal. Laconically the text then tells us that  “Moses was וַיּוֹאֶל – willing or content to stay with the man, and he gave Zipporah his daughter to Moses”. Having met all seven daughters without being given any sense of their individuality or their difference, we now find that one of the daughters is given as a wife to Moses. There has been no courtship, no sense that they were interested in each other or found any connection with each other, Zipporah is simply an object here, given to the “ger Toshav” and she bears him a child whom he (not she) names Gershom, a signifier of Moses’ experience as a stranger in a strange land. It is not indicative of any closeness of relationship or belief in a shared future through the child.

Zipporah is almost invisible. She appears to have no agency whatsoever, no personality is evinced and no relationship with Moses on show. All we have is her name – which probably derives from the root meaning ‘bird’- in particular a sparrow, and seems to gloss the meaning that she is unremarkable and unappreciated.

But our next meeting with Zipporah changes all of that.

While acting as shepherd for his father in law Moses had met God near Horeb at the bush that burned but was not consumed, and been told to return to Egypt and to take out God’s people who were suffering there.  Moses is not at all keen. First he asks God “who am I that I can go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out?” and God reassures him – “I will be with you, and as proof when you have done it you will worship me here”. Moses finds another reason to avoid the task –“no one will believe me. They will ask me for your name and I don’t know what to say”. God responds with a phrase that will answer this fear “ehyeh asher ehyeh – I will be what I will be” God extends the instruction – “Go tell them I sent you, Go gather the elders and tell them I have remembered them and will bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey. Go with the elders and tell Pharaoh to let you take three days journey into the wilderness to worship God. And when Pharaoh refuses, I will smite Egypt and you will be allowed to go. And then when you go, ask for compensation from the Egyptians, you will not leave empty handed”.

Moses responds once more with anxiety:  “They won’t believe me. They won’t think I have met You”. God responds with admirable patience and firstly turns Moses’ staff into a serpent and then back into a staff, and then turns Moses’ hand leprous and then returned it to its healthy state.  These are to be signs Moses can use to convince the Israelites of the authenticity of his meeting with God.

Leaving aside the whiff of bad magical tricks, what we are left with is Moses’ desire not to get involved, not to take any initiative or risk, even at the direct request of God. God even offers him a third sign to show the disbelieving Israelites – the changing of water to blood – it smacks a little of desperation, how many tricks does one need if one actually believes in what you are saying?

Moses finds another reason not to go – he is not an orator, he finds public speaking hard and he is not convinced by God’s response to him that as God has chosen him his speaking skills will be adequate. Only then does God get angry – this dissembling has gone on long enough. Moses will have the help of Aaron, he will have his staff and the various tricks. He should get going.

Interestingly Moses does not get going immediately – instead he goes to Yitro his father in law and asks for permission to leave to see if any of his family in Egypt are still alive. And Yitro tells him to go in peace. Was he hoping that Yitro would not give permission? Who are the brothers in Egypt whose status Moses is referring to?  God seems to respond to an unsaid remark – “everyone who sought your death in Egypt is now dead. Go.”

Moses takes Zipporah and his two sons to journey to Egypt and while they travel God tells him that while he may create magical effects with his staff, Pharaoh will not give the people permission to leave. Then follows an opaque and quite terrifying text.

God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh that Israel is the first born son of God.  Pharaoh has been asked to let God’s first born son travel to worship God, but Pharaoh has refused and so God will kill the son, the first born son of Pharaoh.

The theme of the first born son, of the primacy of that role and the specialness of that child, is emphasised and established. We are prefiguring the final plague when the first born son of everyone in Egypt, from Pharaoh to the animals in the fields, will be slain during one terrible night. All will be killed except the first born of those Israelites who have enacted the ritual of the night of Pesach, slaying a lamb and displaying its blood on their doorpost. There is a time slippage – this is being said before anything has really happened. There is a person slippage – quite who is who is unclear. All we know is that the first born son belongs to God in a way that others do not.

Moses is travelling with his own first born son, Gershom.

On the way to the lodging house, God encountered him (וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ) and sought to kill him.

What is the nature of the encounter? Who does God encounter? Who does God seek to kill?

Is it Moses? Is it Gershom?

Moses is entirely passive. Rigid with shock? Prepared to acquiesce? Unwilling to act? Up till now he has mainly been avoiding what God  asks of him. This seems to be part of the same behaviour.

But Zipporah is having none of it. The daughter of a Cohen Midian, a Midianite Priest, she immediately recognises the danger and the need to act. She becomes a Priestess, performing the ritual that will avert the danger.

Zipporah takes a flint and circumcises her son – presumably Gershom her first born rather than Eliezer.        She touches/approaches ‘his feet’ She declares “כִּ֧י חֲתַן־דָּמִ֛ים אַתָּ֖ה לִֽי:”

It is a priestly ritual with an act and a declaration. The blood seems to be the sacrifice that propitiates God and also binds her to the divine. It also seems to save the life of Moses and/or Gershom.

What is a “hatan damim”. Often translated as a “bridegroom of blood”, it may refer to the newly circumcised Gershom (a child being circumcised is described as Hatan); or to Moses (Hatan can mean bridegroom) in that this act is the one that really binds them together as equal partners in the work of God; or even to God – does she bind God to her in her ritual action where she offers the blood of her own first born? And here is God the Hatan (bridegroom) of the Hatan (father in law)? Has she bought into Moses’ relationship with God by virtue of circumcising her son?

Whatever happens in this night, God withdraws the danger, and Zipporah clarifies that the ritual is to do with the act of circumcision: חֲתַ֥ן דָּמִ֖ים לַמּוּלֹֽת

One might think that this act by Zipporah is enough to give her status and place in the leadership going into Egypt, but bizarrely it appears to have the opposite effect. There is no record that she ever goes to Egypt, and no record that she is part of the events there, and no record that she is part of the Exodus.  Instead she disappears from the text until all these events are over, and then we have an insight into where she had gone.

In this sidra (exodus 18) we find that Yitro, the priest of Midian and hatan (father in law) of Moses , has heard about God having brought the Israelites out of Egypt and he brings Zipporah and their two sons to Moses

We are told

 וַיִּקַּ֗ח יִתְרוֹ֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶת־צִפֹּרָ֖ה אֵ֣שֶׁת מֹשֶׁ֑ה אַחַ֖ר שִׁלּוּחֶֽיהָ:

Yitro, the Hoten of Moses, took Zipporah the wife of Moses, after he had sent her away.

The word for sending away here is the same as that used for divorcing a wife (Deuteronomy 24:1)

Had Moses divorced Zipporah? Had he sent her back to her father’s house in order to protect her from what was to happen in Egypt? Was the sending away an act of shielding love or of punitive revenge? We cannot know. But we do know that Yitro feels confident enough to bring her and the two sons to Moses at the mountain where God will be revealed to Israel.

Is he ensuring his daughter is able to be present at the giving of Torah? Is he ensuring that his grandchildren take their appropriate place in Israelite history? Torah stays silent on the subject. Neither Zipporah nor her two sons with Moses will have any role in the future narrative. Moses is the ultimate high achieving father/husband who has no time for family – everything is focused on his love of his work/God – a personal life is irrelevant.

Poor Zipporah. Moses isn’t even interested to see the family. He welcomes Yitro his father in law, he performs all the social niceties with him, he brings him into the tent and updates him about what has happened and Yitro behaves like a priest. Once again there is a meal – they eat bread together as when Moses first met Yitro.

And Zipporah fades out of the narrative. She is, we assume, at Sinai – but Moses is determined to stay focussed and pure and instructs men and women not to be together for the days of preparation. Their relationship – never close or personal – is now over. Only with the story in the book of Numbers of the complaining about Moses (second) wife being Cushite brings her back to mind. But even here it is not clear – is this a new wife or the same one? There are no children. Moses is not interested in relationships. He is married to his job, to God, to his position as leader.

Zipporah is a woman who, like the other women in the early chapters of Exodus, saves the life of Moses and allows him to grow and mature into the person able to fulfil God’s work. From the midwives who facilitate his birth and his mother who carefully hides him where he will be found, through Miriam and the daughter of Pharaoh, the protective function is carried out by women – a relic maybe of an earlier tradition of guardian goddess, that has been subverted by the paternal and patriarchal characteristic of the Hebrew God.

Zipporah forms no close relationship with a peer. She cuts a lonely figure despite being one of seven sisters.  Her marriage is loveless and cold. She is given no obvious honour or status, does not seem to have any contact with her sister-in-law Miriam (unless one reads Miriam’s complaint about the Cushite wife as being one of sisterly solidarity with Zipporah – a reading that would be quite a stretch).  She stands alone, but she is powerful. She takes on God and makes God back off. She protects her young son and saves his life. She protects her husband and saves his life too. I can only hope she got more pleasure from Gershom and Eliezer, that they honoured and respected her and understood just what a brave and competent woman she was. I like to think of her rising to the priesthood, an early role model who understood ritual and liturgical formula and could use them to best effect.

Whoever she was and whatever happened to her, her name gives us some optimism. Like a sparrow she flies unnoticed, getting on with her life, able to see from her own perspective. As psalm 84 reminds us

גַּם־צִפּ֨וֹר ׀ מָ֢צְאָה בַ֡יִת וּדְר֤וֹר ׀ קֵ֥ן לָהּ֘ אֲשֶׁר־שָׁ֢תָה אֶפְרֹ֫חֶ֥יהָ אֶת־מִ֭זְבְּחוֹתֶיךָ יְהֹוָ֣ה צְבָא֑וֹת מַ֝לְכִּ֗י וֵאלֹהָֽי:

Even a sparrow finds a home and a swallow a nest where she may lay her young, Your altars Adonai tzeva’ot, my sovereign and my ruler.

Zipporah the priestess of Midian both challenges God and is brought by God into the inner circle of God. Where Moses fails her, let’s hope God supports her. She is at Sinai and she is unencumbered by her husband. Who knows what she could have achieved that bible has chosen not to record.

 

Mishpatim: Torah MiSinai is only one half of the conversation

In parashat Yitro is the climactic coming together of God and the Israelite people as three months after the dramatic exodus from Egypt following signs and wonders, the people are encamped at the foot of Mt Sinai and Moses and God encounter each other once more in order to create the agreement that as long as the people will obey God’s voice and keep the covenant, then they will be God’s special treasure among all the peoples of the earth, and shall become a kingdom of priests to God, and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5,6). A period of purification is followed by the majesty of the presence of God, and the words of God are declaimed amid black smoke, thunder and lightning, terrifying the people who declare their willingness to accept the covenant but ask for Moses to be their representative and for them to keep well away from whatever is going on.

The relationship is consummated with words, called in Hebrew the Asseret haDibrot, the Ten Statements, which function essentially as the paragraph headings that prescribe the boundaries and the requirements of the relationship.

Like any new relationship, each side views the other as pretty wonderful, there is no need immediately to get into the gritty details of the red lines and the expectations that will make living together successful or not. But soon of course those realities set in and the couple have to ‘talk tachlis’. Hence the detailed miscellany of laws in the following chapters, including a whole sidra named ‘mishpatim’: the laws and rules of the relationship.

This year, I was especially drawn to thinking about the authority of the rules – who gets to decide what they are, who gets to change them, and to ask – how does the relationship evolve?

In Exodus 24 we have insight into the beginning of the ‘tachlis period’. Moses is to come alone to God. There has been some etiquette about introducing the leaders of the people further up the Mountain, but now Moses tells the people all God’s words and the people answer in unified response “all the words which the Eternal spoke we will do”. Then Moses writes down all the words of God (it is not clear where he does this), after which he builds an altar representing the entire people and there is a sacrificial rite, followed by this information “And Moses took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: ‘All that the Eternal has spoken will we do, and we will understand.’ (24:7)

What is this Book of the Covenant? Why does Moses follow his reading – and the people’s oddly worded response – with a ritual where he takes the blood of the previous sacrifice, sprinkles it on the people and tells them ‘Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Eternal has made with you in agreement with all these words.’ We now have a Book of the Covenant (Sefer ha brit) and Blood of the Covenant (dam ha brit) and then suddenly we are in a vision, as the 70 plus elders of Israel find themselves at a feast where they see God standing on a clear sapphire pavement.

Just as suddenly we are out. God tells Moses ‘Come up to Me into the mount and be there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, and the Torah (teaching) and the commandment (mitzvah)(, which I have written, that you may teach them.’ (v12)

What are these tablets of stone, the Torah and the Mitzvah that Moses is to teach? How do they fit into the covenant? Why then does Moses stay on the mountain after this for forty days and nights, hidden in cloud, leaving his people leaderless and frightened and alone?

The text, like the top of the mountain, is opaque. We cannot understand the encounter, only know that there was indeed such a moment that cemented the relationship between God and Israel, a relationship that might go through many rocky patches and many silences, but which will never actually break. We have a brit, a covenant, and we are tied to each other for eternity.

But what are the parameters of the covenant? What do we have to do? What will we come to understand? And while the existence of the covenant is unchanging, the conditions have clearly developed and altered.

The Talmud sets out the traditional position of the verse asking: What is the meaning of “And I will give you the tablets of stone and the law and the commandment, which I have written so that you can teach them”? “Tablets of stone”-these are the Ten Commandments, “the law” -this is the Torah, “the commandment”- this is the Mishnah,” which I have written”- these are the Prophets and the Writings, “that you may teach them”- this is the Gemara. And it teaches that they were all given to Moses on Sinai (TB Berachot 5a).

This passage is frequently cited as the proof text of Torah miSinai – that God gave to Moses everything that would become Rabbinic Judaism in later years. Either it was given at Sinai or it has no authenticity runs the argument. But surely this cannot be a literal reading of the biblical text, nor a complete reading of the Talmudic one.

The phrase Torah mi Sinai is found only once in Talmudic texts – in the introduction to the Mishnah of Pirkei Avot, where we are told “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it Joshua. Joshua transmitted it to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise many students, and make a protective fence for the Torah.”

It is found not at all in Bible, and indeed while the seeds of the idea of divine revelation encompassing the whole of what became Rabbinic/Halachic Judaism can be discerned, they are only in the later books of Chronicles and of Ezra and Nehemiah, books which are generally seen as being written only in the 5th/4th Century BCE. These books use the words haTorah / Torah while earlier books refer always to Torot, a plurality of teachings. The Book of Nehemiah even refers to Ezra reading In the book, in the Law of God, (BaSefer, b’torat Elohim) distinctly; and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading. (8:8,18), and also” Ezra the scribe [was asked] to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which the Eternal had commanded to Israel”, and so clearly by the early Second Temple period there was a tradition of a Mosaic/divine book of Torah, which is variously described as being the Torah of God or the Torah of Moses, something unknown in earlier biblical texts.

This idea is seized upon by the Rabbis who took for themselves the right to decide not only what the texts would mean, but also used it to assert their authority and control over the people. Hence we have the midrashic text in Leviticus Rabbah (5th Century) ““everything an experienced pupil might ever say to his teacher was revealed to Moses at Sinai.”, and the more worrying Mishnah Sanhedrin (10:1) “…These have no share in the World to Come: One who says that [the belief of] resurrection of the dead is not from the Torah, [one who says that] that the Torah is not from Heaven, and one who denigrates the Torah..”

Why did they do this? Was it in order to emphasise the authenticity of their authority post Temple, against the Karaites and the Sadducees and those who wished to continue Priestly authority? This would certainly make sense as they were reinventing what it meant to be Jewish after the central worship authority had disappeared, and a multiplicity of rival claims may have spread the Jewish people too thinly to survive.

But we are in a different world, where literary criticism and scholarship that takes into account the context of a text mean that we can see that Torah miSinai cannot be a literal description of our foundational texts. Even Maimonides, who famously enshrined Torah miSinai into his thirteen principles of faith, would surely have framed those principles differently in modern times, (And one must also take into account the context of those principles that became Yigdal – he was responding to Islamic claims about the superiority of its revelatory texts).

Whatever the Torah of Moses /the Torah of God means, for which the shorthand remains “Torah miSinai”, it has become a barrier for the Jewish people rather than an enabler. People who have good academic understanding in the secular world find the notion of one book literally given at one time on a desert mountain to be improbable, which means that the world of scriptural literalists tries to keep modernity away from ‘their’ Jews, with terrible consequences often. People who seek to understand the text differently are shunned or worse, treated as if they are no longer Jews. And then there is the halachic process, which from being a dynamic and responsive practice has become solidified and deeply unhelpful often, simply because there is nothing ‘miSinai’ that pushes for change.

I love the idea of God speaking with Moses in the presence of the entire people, and that being an inspirational and creative moment that energised the ongoing relationship of God and the Jews. But I hate the idea that the route to the relationship is held in the hands of people with little understanding of modernity or the modern Jewish people and State, who try to excommunicate anyone who challenges or brings in modern ideas from the Covenant and the peoplehood.

It is time to reclaim Torah MiSinai, to go back to that moment where the whole people heard and said, we will do and we will understand, and while they may have deputed Moses to negotiate the contract on their behalf, did not abdicate their own responsibility for being part of the development of what the contract would mean over time.

_Moses_on_Mount_Sinai_Jean-Léon_Gérôme_-1895-1900

We hear God differently through our diversity: the trick is to listen fully and to know that different voices tell of the same God

The sidra begins with the words “vayishma Yitro – and Jethro heard” – but we don’t know what exactly it was that Jethro heard and understood. The information about what had happened in Egypt, the splitting of the sea and the war against Amalek didn’t have much effect on others who knew of it, so why does only Jethro respond in this way? There must be something else in the text….Either Jethro heard something more than we are told, or else he heard in a way that moved him powerfully and changed him.

Jethro seemed to hear in a particular way, the kind of hearing that happens when someone is moved to re-examine feelings, and so change the direction of their life.   This is more than active listening; it requires openness to the other, readiness to be affected by what one hears.

Hearing is a theme in this sidra. For of course we also have the people hearing God speaking, as the foundational event of Judaism, the giving of Torah at Sinai, happens in the hearing of the people at the foot of the mountain.  But what does it mean to hear the voice of God? And how can we possibly know when we have heard it, let alone allow ourselves to be changed by it?

After three days of preparation, the people are gathered at the foot of the mountain, the summit of which seems to be hidden in a storm of lightening, fire and smoke, and there is thunder and what appears to be the sound of the shofar, though it is never clear who is blowing the shofar. The whole mountain is trembling violently and Moses begins to talk to God and God answers: “And when the voice – Kol – of the horn grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a Kol -voice. It isn’t really clear what it is that people hear when God answers – the word Kol can mean a voice, a sound, even a thunderclap. The ambiguity is important, for each person could claim to have heard God, and yet each may have heard something quite different from others. Rabbi Art Green suggests that what Moses heard was the thunder, just as everyone else did, but that within it he was able to hear the voice of God, even though others could not. Moses’ special ability was that he could translate the voice of God into the words we have– the Asseret haDibrot, the Ten Commandments.

The Talmud (Berachot 45a) records an amazing discussion: “From where do we know that, in the ancient practice of reading the Torah, when an interpreter would translate the Hebrew words of the Torah reader into Aramaic, the interpreter was not allowed to raise his voice above the level of the reader? From the verse: “Moses spoke, and God answered him in a voice.” What does the text mean when it says “in a voice?” asks the Talmud “It means The voice of Moses,” which is understood by them as meaning that God’s voice was at the same volume as Moses’ voice. But it is possible to read this at face value- as Art Green does – So when the Talmud says “God spoke in the voice of Moses” we could understand that God actually did speak in the voice of Moses” That is, at the moment of revelation, the voice of God and the voice of Moses were identical, indistinguishable. The human and divine voice was apparently the same – and this is why Moses was able to discern within the thunder the voice of God – it was his own voice he could hear.

There is a great deal of rabbinic storytelling around the events at Sinai. One of the most important is that it wasn’t only the Israelites at the foot of the mountain who heard the voice of God. The Midrash teaches that the voice went out to all the seventy nations of the world, each in its own language (Shabbat 88b), and another Midrash tells us that every person heard the voice of God differently, each in their own head (Shemot Rabbah 5.9). These are two different Midrashim, with quite different understandings from the text of what was actually heard. And this is diversity of interpretation is important to us. The Talmud, recording the debates of generations of rabbis about what text means, and what God’s will might be, shows us that disagreement and creative understanding are all part of the process of trying to discern what might be the truth of God’s words to us. The only agreement in this diverse process is that there is indeed a truth, but it is not clear what that truth might necessarily be. In the words of Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, “The Midrash can present on one page many contradictory interpretations of any given biblical verse. Certainly our sages realized that if one Midrash gives one version of events and a second Midrash gives a contradictory version, they can’t both be true at the level of what physically happened. However, they understood that each Midrash taught us something they saw as true about the world.  What does this teach us about truth and legitimate disagreement? Judaism does not teach that everything is relative. The message of the Parasha is that there is ultimate truth. However, we don’t always have a common understanding of what that truth is.

How do we negotiate this?  What are the ground rules and red lines when we all passionately believe we are right?  Civil debate becomes even more challenging when we are not merely talking about theoretical issues, but issues that impact upon our most deeply held moral values.” In other words, debate is all the more difficult for us when we are required to really hear the other side, to be prepared to give up some of the things that we hold dearly to ourselves, in order to serve the higher principle of making the world a better and more just place for all.

How do we hear the voice of God in our world? How can we trust what we think we hear? How do we choose between what we want to hear and what is authentically the voice? Firstly, like Jethro, we must listen completely, hear truly what is said and be open to it being something that might challenge what up till now we have held true and firm. And, like Moses, we must let the voice of God sound through our own voices, not that we may think we can speak for God but that we allow God to speak through us.

God is not us, and we are not God, but we must experience God with our own selves, our own experiences, our own way of understanding. And listening to the voice of God, true listening, should inform our choices and challenge our assumptions and some of our closely held attitudes. God is calling us to be something more than we are, to be more the people we should be. That is the voice we must listen to, and give others the right to hear the voice that they also hear – for the one thing our tradition is quite clear about is that each will hear the voice of God differently, but each of us is quite capable of hearing the voice of God.

Parashat Yitro : The process of Revelation, the giving and the accepting.

Famously in bible the Jews are given Torah at Sinai, and while the exact experience of what happens and in what order is hard to follow in the text, three times the words of God are put before the Jewish people and three times they respond to Moses:  

The first report comes in Exodus 19:7-8 where we are told “And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which the Eternal had commanded them. And all the people answered together and said “all that the Eternal has spoken we will do. And Moses reported the words of the people to God.” 

It is not clear if “all the people” described here are really all the people, or their representatives, but the response is clear – “everything God has said, we will do: na’asseh”.

But later, after the giving of the Ten Commandments and the beginning of their explication in the chapters that follow, we are told this:  “And to Moses God said Come up to the Eternal, you and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu and seventy of the elders of Israel;  and worship at a distance. And Moses alone shall come near to God, but they shall not come near, nor shall the people go up with him. And Moses came and told the people all the words of the Eternal, and all the rules, and all the people answered with one voice and said “All the words which the Eternal has spoken, we will do : na’asseh” (Exodus 24:1-4)

And a few verses later we are told “And [Moses] took the book of the covenant and read in the hearing of the people, and they said “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do and we will hear: na’asseh venishma”

This repetition of the transmission of the covenant described in different ways leads us to some interesting places. The phrase “na’asseh venishma” is curious for a number of reasons, not least the meaning of the word nishma here, and of course the word order.  The root shema (shin mem ayin) primarily means to hear, to listen, to pay attention, and goes on to have a meaning of to understand, even to consent to, to agree, to obey…. 

Usually translated as “we will do it and we will understand”, the word order echoes a modern understanding of learning – ie that learning or understanding emerges from action, rather than the other way around.  In the words of Pablo Picasso, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it”. From this strange word order comes the Jewish tradition of action first – that we don’t have to spend time studying or learning before doing the mitzvot, we don’t have to wait to act until we have a fully researched position, but our actions lead to our understanding of the world, and deepen our thinking.  This is much the same way that prayer works. By the act and process of regular prayer, of reciting or meditating upon ancient words, we find ourselves on occasion in the presence of God. In my experience it rarely happens the other way about, that, finding ourselves aware of the Divine, we utter our prayer. The routine of prayer, the regularity and even the almost mantra like poetry of the words and the rote action lead us to another level of awareness sometimes. It acts upon us and seeps into us and changes us.

Na’asseh venishma –it is usually understood to mean that we act before we might have fully worked out all the consequences. It is traditionally understood to mean that we are a religion of doing rather more than one of believing. That our understanding of, and relationship with, God emerges from our right behaviour in the world. I must admit this makes sense to me, resonates with my own experience of mitzvot and of prayer.  

But there is something else. Three times the revelation is presented before the people it seems, and twice only the response “na’asseh” is given. The first time, before the Ten Commandments are spoken, the revelation seems to be given specifically via the elders. It is accepted as a commitment – na’asseh, we will do it.

The second time the revelation is presented is after the Ten Commandments are spoken, but again we are reminded of the leadership’s attendance, Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders are nearby, even though only Moses is in the presence of God.  Again the response is na’aseh, we will do it.

But the third time it is different –this time the relationship between God and people is not mediated through a leadership, but Moses reads the Book of the Covenant to all the people, and then they reply with this curious phrase “na’asseh venishma”. What is being added to the agreement to act? Is it truly knowledge and understanding? Is it compliance and obedience? Or is it the openness to committing at a deeper level? Not the intellectual expertise that grows from repeated doing, but the relationship that is created from an ongoing commitment to simply be there, attentive, part of the other person’s world.  Once the people are engaged directly, it seems to me that they not only agree to the Covenant being presented to them, they additionally agree to the relationship that will emerge from this Covenant being enacted, that the Covenant in effect will become part of them.

We live in a world where we pride ourselves on being rational, thought-through, evidence based. We don’t act without forethought, without awareness of consequences. We would rather overthink than reach out impulsively. We are cautious, careful, watchful. And yet at Sinai we see something different – the willingness to take on trust, the preparedness to take the next step without knowing what it might entail, the openness to whatever will grow and emerge that is out of our ability to control. It is the paradigm for any loving relationship, the model for any creative endeavour. It bespeaks hope and it bespeaks a kind of confidence that whatever comes our way we will be able to negotiate through it. That to me is the miracle of Sinai. Not the shaking mountain or the smoke and shofar, but the way that God and Moses learn to stop using a hierarchy and engage directly with the people, and the way the people respond by throwing their lot in with God and Moses. Clearly both sides take a risk and step into the unknown.

It is said that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty and here there is no certainty. There is only the openness that what will be will be a journey worth embarking upon. A journey and an openness to possibility that marks us even now – for as the Midrash tells us, we all stand at Sinai.

Yitro

The sidra that contains the Asseret HaDibrot, the Ten Commandments, is named for a non Jew, a pagan priest, a man who is grandfather to Moses’ sons and who teaches Moses about the importance of Justice not being delayed. He is also the man who recognises that the God of the Hebrews is the most powerful of all gods. And yet this man walks away just before the moment when the collective People of Israel is formed by the creation of its covenant with God. He, whose name means ‘abundance’ or ‘plenty’ seems to walk out of history and yet we remember him and all he did for Moses, we honour his name in the very sidra where God meets and forms the unbreakable covenant bond with the Jewish people.  Without Yitro, his care and protection, his teaching of religious rituals, Moses may never have come to understand what he saw at the burning bush, and Israel may never have understood what happened at Sinai, and yet Yitro himself did not seem to need this relationship – as a priest himself he clearly had his own connection with God.

When God does speak to Israel, we immediately face a curiosity in the text, for the word God begins with is strange – The introduction of God to the people is with the word:  “I am”  but using a rare four letter root “Anochi” instead of the more usual word “Ani”. The Talmud has a beautiful explanation for why God is using such a strange word to introduce God to the people:- Rabbi Yochanan explains that this word must be an acronym  for Ana Nafshi Ketovit Yehovit  – which means “I wrote My very soul and gave it to you” or “I am giving you My soul in writing” (Shabbat 105a).

The Ten Commandments are neither ten, nor are they commandments. They are, as the Hebrew nomenclature makes clear to us, statements. Some of them could be understood to be commandments, and indeed the famous biblical commentator Rashi sees them as the basic categories for the 613 commandments traditionally said to be in Torah, but to see them only as demands on us would be to miss out on the richness of the event.

Traditional commentators wrestle with the notion of commandments, and what it means for our ongoing understanding of God. Some say that the word “Anochi” might be said to be a commandment (Know that I am God), but equally others claim that it couldn’t yet be a commandment, as to be commanded one must first believe in (or at least acknowledge) a commander, and the speaking of the word Anochi therefore can only be the first moment of such understanding, and therefore the prerequisite to the mitzvot. Only if one believes in the existence of God can the further teachings of God have meaning.

So ‘Anochi’ is really a portal into relationship with God, it is the liminal moment when we understand that God exists. This cannot be commanded, it must be experienced in some way by the soul who chooses to do so. A colleague told me recently that during her rabbinic training she confided to one of her teachers that she was finding herself unexpectedly moved, gripped by she knew not what. The response “If you show an interest you will be taken seriously” was, she said, the most frightening thing she ever heard, and one that has stayed with her to this day. She had entered the portal of “Anochi”, had understood that when studying Torah she encounters God’s soul in writing.

There is so much more to mitzvot than “the ten commandments”, so much more to how we are in the world than “good behaviour” or kindness or charity to others. Once you search for “Anochi” seriously, you will be taken seriously and you will see the world through different lenses and over a different timeframe.  My guess is that Yitro had already done this in his own way, he did not need Sinai, he was already in his own particular relationship with God, his life was yeter, more than enough, filled with its own meaning and understanding.  But he opened the portal for us to find our way, our Jewish way.  For each of us must find God, and make our relationship with God, in our own way, and each must understand that “Anochi” has many ways of relationship just as there are many different peoples of the world.